How Awkwafina and Sandra Oh found cultural sensitivity — and laughs — in ‘Quiz Lady’

Two Asian American women smile as one drapes her arm around the other's shoulder for a portrait.
Sandra Oh, left, and Awkwafina star as sisters in the TV movie “Quiz Lady.”
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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When Awkwafina first brought her friend Sandra Oh the script for “Quiz Lady,” it was instantly apparent to Oh, who is best known for her dramatic work, that the part she coveted wasn’t Anne, the reclusive accounting employee, but Jenny, the noisy, impulsive older sister. The odd-couple premise of two estranged sisters teaming up to pay off their mother’s gambling debt and retrieve Mr. Linguini, Anne’s kidnapped pug, was based on screenwriter Jen D’Angelo and her siblings and had originally been written for white actors.

That was changed through a series of brainstorming sessions (“therapy-like” is how Awkwafina characterized them) with director Jessica Yu where they all told personal stories, many of which D’Angelo incorporated into the final draft. “A lot of our input was about getting to the cultural sensitivity of certain things,” says Awkwafina. “And Jen really handled that with care.”

The two actors joined The Envelope to discuss sisterly bonding, improvisation and clowning around — literally.


Let’s talk about helping shape the “Quiz Lady” script. What were some of the key details you wanted to add?

Awkwafina: I personally wanted to make the [sisters] mixed Asian. I’m Korean and Chinese, and Sandra’s Korean.

Sandra Oh: There’s some straight jokes that Jen put in that I personally loved. Like how the character of Jenny just would use her Asian-ness to benefit herself at every turn whether it fit or not. For me, I was looking for a broad comedy about Asian characters who were losers, who weren’t gorgeous, rich people or particularly smart or successful. That’s what also attracted me to this part. These two sisters come from a working-class world, a place where their parents are divorced and their mother has a gambling problem. A place where they haven’t been in touch and aren’t close. That exploration was important to us. But we also wanted to move past the beautiful example of showing culture through food. This wasn’t the movie for it.

Two women, one with slumped shoulders, the other with purple streaks in her hair, look upset in "Quiz Lady."
“I was looking for a broad comedy about Asian characters who were losers, who weren’t gorgeous, rich people or particularly smart or successful,” says Sandra Oh, right, of joining “Quiz Lady” with Awkwafina.
(Michele K. Short / 20th Century Studios)

How did you two go about developing that detectable undercurrent of connection that sisters can radiate?

Awkwafina: That part was really organic. I’m an only child. I think that as an actress, especially coming to [acting] later, [Sandra] filled in a sister role. I was able to talk to her about extraordinarily deep things.


Sandra, what about Jenny made you decide that prepping with a clown coach would help your performance?

Oh: When I went to theater school, I did a lot of mask and clown work. Jenny is so broad, overbearing, greedy, insecure. So physical. I wanted to be really comfortable in Jenny’s physicality before I hit the set, so I called up a [former] classmate of mine who teaches clown internationally and said, “Matt, will you come over for a couple sessions and help me explore this character?”

Just to be clear, working with a clown coach means you’re acting out things in a physically exaggerated way?

Oh: It’s a whole thing. If you’re really greedy, how do you move in a greedy way? If you’re really insecure, how do you move in an insecure way?

Awkwafina and Sandra Oh share a laugh during a portrait shoot.
As an only child, Awkwafina, left, says screen partner Sandra Oh “filled in a sister role. I was able to talk to her about extraordinarily deep things.”
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

And Anne’s slump-shouldered “don’t-look-at-me” body language? What inspired that?


Awkwafina: It’s weird, but of all the characters I’ve played, I related to Anne the most. I actually do feel like I’m in fight, flight or freeze [mode] all the time. Even though I do a lot of comedies, I’m actually pretty serious. This is a character who’s trying to avoid chaos, who feels like all the responsibilities are falling on her, and also has self-image problems. She doesn’t want people to [notice] her.

Paul Reubens makes a brief but delightful appearance in “Quiz Lady.” It was his final performance.

Oh: Jen wrote [the cameo] specifically for Paul.

Awkwafina: Jen and I are the same age, and we’re obsessed with Pee-wee [Herman]. He was our icon growing up. There’s this millennial crazy appreciation of Pee-wee.

Is it true Sandra recruited him after meeting him at the invitation-only old-school variety show “Brookledge Follies”?

Oh: Yes, I met Paul there. We have mutual friends. So I [called] him and said, “Can I send you something?” Then, honestly, it was like, “Yeah,” and he was so sweet and as elegant as you’d imagine. So great. Just came in and killed it. It was the first day, and it set the tone for the rest of the movie.

The Pee-wee Herman actor, who died in July, appears in R-rated comedy ‘Quiz Lady,’ premiering Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Sept. 9, 2023

One of the funniest scenes involves Anne and Jenny using their childhood memories to win at charades on the fictional game show “Can’t Stop the Quiz.”


Oh: That entire thing is completely improv.

Awkwafina: In the script it says, “Anne does charades,” and I don’t know why but it just didn’t click in [that we’d be making it up on the spot].

Oh: There was certain [dialogue] I knew we had to get to. But we cross-shot, so I’m really just reacting to whatever she is doing. It was probably the third day of filming, which made it a little bit of a challenge.

How much of your performances were improvised?

Oh: I’d say a lot. Jen comes from improv, so she was really understanding and loose with it. But the deeper and deeper we got into it, [Awkwafina] and I just wouldn’t stop. We gave them so much material.